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Biofuels: Implications for Land Use and Biodiversity

Relationships between people and their environment are largely defined by land use. Space and soil are needed for native plants and wildlife, as well as for crops used for food, feed, fiber, wood products and biofuel (liquid fuel derived from plant material). People also use land for homes, schools, jobs, transportation, mining and recreation. Social and economic forces influence the allocation of land to various uses. The recent increase in biofuel production offers the opportunity to design ways to select locations and management plans that are best suited to meet human needs while also protecting natural biodiversity (the variation of life within an ecosystem, biome or the entire Earth). Forethought and careful planning can help society balance these diverse demands for land. At the same time, current energy infrastructure must become less reliant on the earth’s finite supply of fossil fuels because they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, cause environmental pollution, and jeopardize energy security. The sustainable development of renewable fuel alternatives can offer many benefits but will demand a comprehensive understanding of how our land-use choices affect the ecological systems around us. By incorporating both socioeconomic and ecological principles into policies, decisions made regarding biofuel production can be based on a more sustainable balance of social, economic, and ecological costs and benefits. Researchers are actively studying the potential impacts of biofuels production on land use and biodiversity, and there is not yet a firm consensus on the extent of these effects or how to measure them. In this report, we summarize the range of conclusions to date by exploring the features and benefits of a landscape approach to analyzing potential land-use changes associated with biofuel production using different feedstocks. We look at how economics and farm policies may influence the location and amount of acreage that will ultimately be put into biofuel production and how those land-use changes might affect biodiversity. We also discuss the complexities of land-use assessments, estimates of carbon emissions, and the interactions of biofuel production and the US Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program. We examine the links between water and biofuel crops and how biofuel expansion might avoid “food versus fuel” conflicts. Finally, we outline ways to design bioenergy systems in order to optimize their social, economic and ecological benefits.